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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Patricia McKillip
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Patricia Anne McKillip of fantasy and science fiction. For her novels, she has won the World Fantasy Award, Locus Award, and Mythopoeic Award, and received numerous nominations for a variety of other awards. In 2008, she received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. Works include the Riddle-Master trilogy (The Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, Harpist in the Wind), the Cygnet duology, the Kyreol duology, numerous stand-alone novels, and countless short stories.

(Interview recorded at the World Fantasy Convention, 2010)

SCHWEITZER: Let's go right to the heart of things. Why fantasy? Why do you write fantasy? Everybody has a different answer to that.

McKILLIP: I started writing when I was very young and they tell you to write what you know, and what I knew was fantasy, I suppose. When I was seventeen I stayed up until three in the morning reading Tolkien and was so astonished by it, I think, because I am a post-Baby Boom child and was brought up very rigidly Catholic. So, as a Catholic your mythological world has a wall around it, and Tolkien just tipped that wall right over. He demolished it. He made you feel like the imagination was something you could keep on going through and go through and never find an end to.

So I started doing research. I literally tried to find his worlds. I didn't know what they were, whether they were real or not. I looked in history and then I got the idea of looking in mythology, poetry, and legends and got into really finding his sources. Things grew from there, and I had to write the trilogy.

SCHWEITZER: American culture seems to have been very much cut off from the fantastic and from myth. I think the reason that Tolkien took everybody by storm is that, before that, what was there for most people except Disney versions of fairy tales? So, were you aware that there was an actual fantasy literature, as opposed to just Tolkien?

McKILLIP: Well, there wasn't very much. When I was growing up there was Andre Norton. There was Fritz Leiber. I grew up partly overseas, so I had to read what was in the library there, because my dad was in the Air Force, and I would read whatever was on the air bases, which is where I ran into Fritz Leiber. I loved his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Andre Norton was also very interesting to me, but that was about all there was until I got into college and I read Ursula Le Guin. I thought her science fiction was wonderful. I can't remember anybody else. I was going for a master's in literature at that point and was reading anything but fantasy, and that's about all the fantasy I can remember.

SCHWEITZER: Like most of us Baby Boomers, I'm a child of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. Were you much influenced by those books that Lin Carter did?

McKILLIP: That was after I'd gotten started, after I got published, that they came out. But, no, I did not read a lot of those books.

SCHWEITZER: So you may be one of the last fantasy writers who began writing without any sense of being part of a generic tradition. What Carter did was assemble a canon, so subsequent writers would see themselves as being part of that canon. But you would have started writing before there was a canon. Is this so?

McKILLIP: At least as an English major I didn't look in the part of the library where they might have put a fantasy canon. Literally in the bookstores there was one small shelf of fantasy and one small shelf of science fiction. Tiny. Two feet long. That was it.

SCHWEITZER: When I was in college there were still professors who had been programmed to despise James Branch Cabell. Lord Dunsany was okay because of his association with Yeats, but otherwise the impression you got from the educational system is that fantasy is acceptable literature up to about Mark Twain, and only if it is satire.

McKILLIP: Even the very few writing teachers I had did not know what to make of my fantasy. I took about three writing courses. I went to San Jose State, which did not have a writing program then. It was encompassed within the English Literature department. Nobody knew what to do with fantasy. I tried writing some modern stuff, but the teachers weren't happy with that either. So I just did what I wanted.

SCHWEITZER: Your first couple of books were juveniles. Did you encounter the assumption from publishers that fantasy is for kids?

McKILLIP: Well the first book was more of a ghost story than a fantasy, and it had a lot of English history in it. It's about the four hundred year old house that I lived in as a kid over in England, and the priest-hole in the basement, and I imagined ghosts down there. So it had a lot of history and not really a lot of fantasy. But I published that when I was in college, getting my master's degree. I was really, really embarrassed. I'd been reading Henry James and Faulkner and God knows who all, and here I came out with this little YA novel, and was published, and all the teachers were going, "Whoa!" I was going, "Oh, sorry!" [Laughs.]

SCHWEITZER: But you had a published novel and they didn't.

McKILLIP: I think they were impressed.

SCHWEITZER: Are you then an entirely self-taught writer? It sounds like you didn't get much from the educational system.

McKILLIP: I was taught by the books I read. I learned early that reading was just as important as writing. You read everything you could get your hands on. You wrote everything you could think of. Those are my two basic rules. Other than that I did not really have writing courses, and the one really good teacher I had was a poetry teacher, oddly enough. So he never saw my fantasy, though he liked it once he got hold of a couple of my books.

SCHWEITZER: As I remember it, from the perception of the fantasy field, you came on the map very suddenly in 1975 with Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which won the first World Fantasy Award for novel, and everybody wondered, "Who is she? What else has she written?" I've never seen your first two books, the ones that came before that point, but I've heard about them as a result.

McKILLIP: The second one was The Throme of the Erril of Sherill, which is a very short story. It is only about 50 pages long and is definitely a fairy tale, nicely illustrated and bound. But it is not one that you would really find unless you were looking for it. The third one was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld which won the World Fantasy Award. That I wrote as an adult novel, but after it got rejected by the adult department at Atheneum, my children's editor, Jean Karl, took it. She wanted cross-over novels for teen-aged girls, which was kind of rare in those days.

SCHWEITZER: Did your career suddenly turn around as soon as that novel crossed over in paperback into the adult fantasy category?

McKILLIP: Pretty much. When my editor called me and told me what the financial offer was for the paperback of Forgotten Beasts, I told her I nearly fell off my chair, and she said, "So did I." It wasn't that big by modern standards, but by those earlier standards it certainly was. The next novel that came out was a basic YA with no fantasy, and after that came the trilogy, and that launched my fantasy writing career.

SCHWEITZER: The rest is history, to coin a phrase. But to speak of history, the generation before us doesn't seem to have had much use for fantasy. I think people who grew up in the Depression were too caught up in daily life, and the ideology of the time was certainly one which equated "serious literature" with realism. Then things changed. Do you have any sense of why fantasy came back?

McKILLIP: I think that it was just what I said before. A whole generation grew up and was able to go to college. I was certainly one of the first in either one of my families to go to college. So we had a lot of different influences that our parents didn't have. Tolkien just opened the doors to imagination. I think our generation was ready for it, because when we were growing up we didn't have the immediate concerns that our parents had, you know, in terms of paying the mortgage and stuff like that, so we could let our minds sort of wander - and boy, they wandered!

SCHWEITZER: We're talking about a literature which is often called escapist, but I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that the only people opposed to escape are jailers. You must have gotten into these discussions when somebody asked you, "Why don't you write anything serious?" Fantasy writers have to explain that it is about something real. So how do you explain to people who ask questions like that, what fantasy is about?

McKILLIP: I try to avoid explaining as much as possible. To me it is a very profound thing. It is literally the quest to find the correlative stories that will make you look at them and say, "Oh yes, I need to do this," or "I need this particular symbol." You respond to these things. That's the heroic quest. I don't know. I keep thinking of some kind of video game where images light up if you hit the right button. I think it's very true as I was growing up that what I needed I found in literature. Those symbols - my response to them - made me realize that this is what fantasy was about, the quest for unification and peace within yourself. This was the way you went about it. You fought your way through these various tales that you needed, that you responded to.

SCHWEITZER: Joseph Campbell, for example, worked out a very elaborate model of what the quest fantasy is about. I wonder: should fantasy writers be thinking theoretically at all, or should they just do it?

McKILLIP: I think just doing it is important, because you know what you need to do as you do it. But I have thought about it. You can't help thinking about it. I've read some Jung and read Campbell and Robert Graves, gained enough from them to realize that I wasn't the first person to be thinking about all this. It is a legitimate way of looking at fantasy, but I don't have hard and fast rules about what you should do in fantasy. It's what you need to do that's important.

SCHWEITZER: Do you feel any conflict between what you need to do and what the marketplace demands? Is there any sense from the editors and publishers that a fantasy is expected to have certain expected tropes or ingredients?

McKILLIP: Only in the sense that if I need to pay my mortgage, then I would write something that would be sellable. I have done that. But I don't really think that it compromised anything I needed to do. I still drag my feet at the idea of writing about vampires or zombies. I don't think I could do it well.

SCHWEITZER: I think the appropriate response to a really tight formula is to get silly. You could probably write a funny zombie story.

McKILLIP: [Laughs.] You could write a funny zombie story.

SCHWEITZER: After your Riddle Master trilogy you shifted to science fiction, with Moon-Flash, Fool's Run, etc. for a few years. Why did this happen just then?

McKILLIP: After I finished the Riddle Master trilogy, I swore I would never write another fantasy. That's how difficult the twelve-year process of writing it was. A friend who loved both music and s/f encouraged me to try a science fiction novel, so I put him into it as my keyboard playing musician. It took me eight years to write that novel, partly because I was very much aware of the critical faculties of s/f readers, and knew that I'd hear about it if I wrote it poorly. The YA novels Moon-Flash and The Moon and the Face I wrote before I finished Fool's Run, as a kind of respite from the difficulties of writing adult s/f.

I enjoy reading s/f, and some of the best of what I read is written by people with degrees in science. I found that intimidating, back then.

SCHWEITZER: The Clute-Nichols Encyclopedia of Science Fiction goes so far as to suggest that you are more at home with fantasy than with s/f. Would you agree?

McKILLIP: I knew my way around fantasy; I had to flounder my way around in s/f. So, yes, I think the Clute-Nichols Encyclopedia of S/F is correct: I am more comfortable writing fantasy. I could use a much broader vocabulary in Fool's Run, than I had writing the Trilogy. I could envision aliens and strange planets in The Moon and the Face. All this is quite wonderful, and I enjoyed doing it very much.

But I don't think easily in terms of s/f. I did try other s/f ideas but they didn't get off the ground. So I went back to what I knew best. In the late 80s everyone seemed to be writing series. I envisioned writing a line of novels that had nothing in common except that they were fantasy. So I started to work on that. And now, after a couple of decades and many fantasy novels, I'd like a change.

SCHWEITZER: What are your writing methods like? Do you outline a novel? Do you discover it as you write it?

McKILLIP: I try to write about four hours a day, because that is the limit to the amount of time I can do absolutely nothing. If you do absolutely nothing long enough, you get bored and start working. So that helps a bit. I don't outline. I tried that once many years ago, and realized that once you have outlined the entire story, it's just gone. There's no reason to write it. I'm trying to think if there is any one way to do a novel. I don't know. . . . Some of them come easily. Some you have to really research. Just flail about until you find whatever it is that makes you pause and look at it and think there is a story in this somewhere. Then you start finding the story.

SCHWEITZER: Do you write the first chapter without knowing what's in the second?

McKILLIP: No. I like to know. I like to think I know, but usually I don't.

SCHWEITZER: Some writers report that when they're writing a book, sometimes something very odd happens and they wonder "Where did that come from?" Has this ever happened to you?

McKILLIP: When I was writing Fool's Run, I had written half of it and then a character popped up and I thought, "I need this character in the whole book." So I had to go back and rewrite it. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is one that I just sat down and wrote. It took me five weeks to write that thing, and I had no idea what was going to happen, and that is very rare. Usually you have to work harder at it than that, or I do. But I have to go back a little bit. My father was born during the Depression and was one of those people who was rigidly Catholic and probably never used what imagination he had. But he sat down with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld before I published it. He was an Air Force captain by then - six kids, thoroughly military - and he turned page after page. He told me later that he had to keep reading it to find out what was going to happen. I thought that was just wonderful. Actually he was out of the military by then. He was working for Lockheed. He was very proud of that novel.

SCHWEITZER: Isn't this the essence of any storytelling, that it compels the reader to turn the page to find out what will happen next?

McKILLIP: Yes, but my own father? Who would have thought?

SCHWEITZER: Obviously you had the power to captivate and convert people . . . So, do you have any sense of what you'd like to do in a novel that you haven't done yet?

McKILLIP: I'd like to bring the world in more. I'm feeling a little over-extended in fantasy these days and I would like to change the way I look at writing and change what details I put in and see if there can be a different way of mingling fantasy and reality and history and geology . . . you know, the various things we encounter every single day. How do you put all that into a novel and call it fantasy? That is what I am really curious about.

SCHWEITZER: Are you a fan of T.H. White? He was a writer who seemed to just pour everything he knew and read and felt all into one book, The Once and Future King.

McKILLIP: That was one I read six times while I was in high school, even before I read Tolkien. I should have remembered how much I loved that book. Yeah, but his tone was such that he didn't tell us how to do things so much as show us what kind of voice he had. I don't know. That novel is so complex that I cannot imagine even trying to imitate it.

SCHWEITZER: I don't think imitation is what you want. Tolkien has been imitated many times, but whenever somebody writes an imitation of Tolkien they merely prove that he is inimitable. . . . So, what are you working on now?

McKILLIP: I am working on a novel to pay the mortgage and I am also trying to work out a way of being happy with it, despite all its beginning flaws. I am just trying to figure out what's wrong with it.

SCHWEITZER: I assume you'll wait until you're happy with it before you publish it, so this is just part of the discovery process.

McKILLIP: It occurred to me that it's something I could sell. Maybe it's YA, maybe it's adult. I don't know yet. I've been wanting to give up on it fifty times since I started on it several months ago, but there is something about it that intrigues me, and that part of it that intrigues me is what keeps me going, because I don't know what it is that I want out of this yet.

SCHWEITZER: Presumably you are your own first reader, and you write to please yourself first.

McKILLIP: Yes, and I am my own first critic. I really try and criticize everything. I read like a critic and like a reader who is trying to love what she's reading. Then my agent gets a hold of it and tells me where I have gone wrong, or my husband reads it and he tells me it's boring. These things help.

SCHWEITZER: Most of your fantasies have been ones in which you immerse the story in another world, as Tolkien does. But there's another approach, in which the fantasy intrudes into our world. Have you felt any inclination to do this sort of fantasy?

McKILLIP: Only in the sense that I'd like to write more about the real world because had lots of words that I don't get to use in fantasy. I don't know, like coffee urn and deodorant and stuff like that. You can't say those things in an epic fantasy. Yeah, I would like to put fantasy in the real world. I just don't quite know in what fashion yet. I would love it to somehow . . . I don't know. That's tough for me. I'm still thinking about it. I haven't thought of it before.

SCHWEITZER: You could write a fantasy in which you mention coffee urns and deodorant. It would be a very different kind of fantasy.

McKILLIP: You can mention things like that in The War for the Oaks or something like that.

SCHWEITZER: We have a standard post-Tolkien fantasy now, in which the setting is pre-industrial and rural, and that's why they don't have coffee urns in them. But why does this have to be so? Is there something inherent in a pre-industrial setting that makes epic fantasy happen? Why couldn't they have a steam engine in there?

McKILLIP: They do these days. They have steampunk all over the place. To me that's fantasy too, and it's wonderful. [We are in the green room at the World Fantasy Convention. Voice from behind us: "Coffee to your left and teapot to your right."] That's something you can't hear in one of my fantasies, isn't it? I've forgotten the question . . .

SCHWEITZER: Can we break out of the rules? Is our idea of what a fantasy is itself restrictive?

McKILLIP: It is for me a little bit, because I have been writing this way for years and years, but not for other people. Charles de Lint has his modern cities, and Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads was an incredible fantasy. I am not sure what exactly it was, but it was amazing, and she ranged from Caribbean history to French history to modern times. People do anything they want in fantasy nowadays. They can use any language they want.

SCHWEITZER: Presumably you could do anything you wanted.

McKILLIP: Presumably. One would hope that I could change at my age.

SCHWEITZER: Why not? I am reminded of something Picasso said when he was about 80. He was asked by an interviewer, "What are you doing now?" and he said, "I'm looking for a new style."

McKILLIP: So am I.

SCHWEITZER: Thank you, Patricia McKillip.

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